AUSTRALIA: Alarming fall in Chinese student numbers

For the first time in more than 14 years, an Australian minister for tertiary education has gone to China to try to head off a potentially disastrous collapse in the number of young Chinese studying in Australia.

Senator Chris Evans, a former immigration minister in the previous Labor government, headed a four-day, high-level university delegation to China last week. It was Evans' first international visit as Tertiary Education Minister and was, he said, intended "to deepen educational cooperation between Australia and China and explore new opportunities for collaboration between universities in both countries".

But the trip also signified that the cries of alarm emerging from Australia's universities about the prospect of a catastrophic fall in enrolments of Chinese students had begun to influence government decisions.

More than one in three of the 212,000 overseas students on university campuses in Australia are from China and one in 10 are from India. These two markets have become so large - they now comprise almost 46% of the total - that any fall-off has serious consequences.

Last August, 77,000 mainland Chinese were studying in Australian universities compared with 21,100 Indians. Although Chinese numbers jumped by 17% this year and those from India fell by 23%, some observers are predicting enrolments of Chinese will drop by up to 40% in 2011.

As reported in University World News last month, the effect of the looming shortfall is already being felt with Monash University, the nation's biggest, facing a A$45 million (US$44.8 million) drop in revenue next year and the loss of 300 jobs.

Monash Vice-chancellor Professor Ed Byrne said the university generated some A$450 million a year from its overseas students, out of an annual income of around $1.6 billion. A significant proportion of the students' fees came from Monash College where students undertake pre-university study before enrolling in degree courses. It was the dive in these numbers that Byrne said helped contribute to next year's projected budget shortfall.

"If we thought the projected fall in student numbers in 2011 was an aberration we could ride it out," Byrne says. "But we think the years ahead will be tougher in the international market place than the last few years have been."

Speaking in Beijing, Evans said it was important to deliver the message that "we are interested in deeper exchanges with China and collaboration on research". He said China was Australia's largest trading partner and "we need to be serious about educational exchange and developing those opportunities which build people-to-people skills".

Evans said the visit would also highlight the economic and social importance of Australia's international education sector "and the significance the government placed on quality and sustainability in international education".

He acknowledged that the issues currently facing Australian higher education - including the strength of the Australian dollar, increased competition from other Sestern countries and stricter immigration rules - had contributed to a downturn in student enrolments.

"We are committed to working with the international education sector in a practical way to ensure that Australia continues to be recognised internationally for the high quality of its educational offerings," Evans said.

"The impact of the strength of the Australian dollar is being felt across all markets. But at a time when the sector is experiencing unprecedented short-term challenges, this is no time to stall reform. On the contrary, it is exactly the right time to push on to build a sector that is stronger and better because it is built around improved quality and integrity."

The delegation included Professor Peter Coaldrake, Chair of the vice-chancellors' lobby group Universities Australia; Professor Ross Milbourne, Chair of the Australian Technology Network; Professor Paul Greenfield, Vice-chancellor University of Queensland; and Jennie Lang, Pro-vice- chancellor International at the University of New South Wales.

Evans also announced that Chinese students thinking about studying in Australia could now refer to a "single, authoritative source of information". He said the Study in Australia information portal contained comprehensive and up-to-date information on all aspects of living and studying in Australia, including accommodation, safety, employment rights and responsibilities, and student support services.

The initiative was part of Australia's International Student Strategy released by the Council of Australian Governments last month, which covered key areas of international student experience, such as the quality of education, their well-being and consumer protection.

"One of the four key action areas of the strategy is the availability of better information for international students," Evans said. "The portal provides prospective students with clear and accurate information to make informed decisions about coming to Australia."

The strategy outlines 12 initiatives to address areas of concern, including a national community engagement strategy that will facilitate connections between international students and the broader community, including increased understanding of rights and support services; development of an international student consultative committee in the first half of 2011; the Study in Australia information portal which has information in 12 languages; and overseas student health cover now compulsory for international students for the proposed duration of their student visit, not just their first year.

Other measures outlined in the strategy include international student surveys, a requirement for education providers to develop student safety plans, establishment of 'provider closure taskforces', and a strengthened Australian Quality Training Framework and Education Services for Overseas Students Act.

Evans said the strategy would help promote a broader understanding of the benefits brought by international education to Australia and the countries from which international students come.

* Evans also announced that an exchange scheme for Australian and Chinese university leaders would be expanded with a A$100,000 grant to expand the China-Australia Executive Leadership Program - a joint initiative of Universities Australia and the China Education Association for International Exchange.

He said the exchange programme had given more than 100 university leaders the opportunity to develop a deep understanding of leading practice in each other's higher education system. One alumni was the Chinese Vice-Minister for Education, Hao Ping.